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THEATER REVIEW Burnham's Dream: The White City
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times
2018-06-12

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Playwright: June Finfer ( book/lyrics ) and Elizabeth Doyle ( music/lyrics )

At: Lost and Found Productions at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets: 773-975-8150; TheaterWit.org; $42. Runs through: July 1

Burnham's Dream: The White City is a sweet-sounding, sweetly sung, intelligent slice of Chicago history with melodies hinting at ragtime, blues, ballads, Irish fiddle tunes, barrelhouse polkas and barbershop quartets—all true to late-19th century popular music.

But "sweet" hardly is the word for thoroughly rambunctious 1890s Chicago, growing explosively from the ashes of the Great Fire. The generally sweet tone of Burnham's Dream is a choice that provides unity and integrity, but which become problematic.

For example, the little orchestra of piano, cello and wonderful woodwinds ( played by Miles Tesar ) lacks a rhythm instrument ( percussion, bass or guitar ) to energize and drive up-tempos tunes and provide strong button endings for others. Eventually, the sweet tunes sound similar and do not convey distinctly different emotions particular to character or situation.

Another decision was not to use amplification in the intimate space. It could be my old ears, but I hardly heard the cello part because of this, and some voices didn't fill the small theater, among them Pavi Proczko as Daniel Burnham. His singing voice is expressive—I've enjoyed his work before—just not very big. Amplification would help. Nonetheless, the talented ensemble has charm and personality under astute conductor Annabelle Revak, clever choreographer Jessica Texidor, musical director Paul W. Thompson and director Erik Wagner.

Burnham's Dream is about legendary architect Daniel "Make no small plans" Burnham ( 1846-1912 ), his early-career partner John Root, and their ambition to design and build the 1892-1893 Chicago world's fair that gave posterity the Ferris wheel. By most accounts, Burnham was a concept man and great business organizer while Root brilliantly filled in the architectural and structural details. When Root died at 41 in 1891, Burnham soldiered on and turned the Fair into a brilliant and profitable success.

Unfortunately, it's Root who comes across as the man of high concept, social engagement and vision while Burnham comes across as a conservative engineer and great foreman. There's no hint of the grand urban planner—dedicated to urban beauty, practicality and social order—that Burnham became. The show needs a moment —currently missing—when Burnham clearly states or sings "This is my dream, my vision." To realize its potential, Burnham's Dream needs more musical heft and a stronger title character.

Also, it may have too many songs. Every character has a song, some being only one verse and chorus. The authors should cull the songs ( and shorten the show ), using music only where it can be most effective. They might consider, too, the social issues squeezed in—women ( Bertha Palmer, performed by Genevieve Thiers ), immigrants ( mainly Irish immigrant Michael O'Malley, performed by Chase Wheaton-Werle ), African-Americans ( Ida B. Wells, performed by Arielle Leverett )—who were part of Chicago but not necessarily specific to Burnham. If they are present, we need to see them influence his vision.


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